Twilight in America

While visiting my Mom, 91 and down with a grippe that has seized and shaken the retirement community where she lives (a phenomenon that makes us question her decision to be warehoused with so many other older folks What has happened to vertical integration in this society? – but back to that in a minute) I came across a book I have been looking for on my own shelves during these last few months of electoral and economic turmoil.  Apparently, I lent it to my Dad as he was in his last month some six years ago, and in the uproar of his sudden death, I forgot all about the lending.  It was still on his night table; Mom says it was the last book he was into – that’s a stretch, he always had three or four going.  I took it back; it is definitely bittersweet to find his underlinings, ticks, and ubiquitous marginal calculations in his small hand for the first half of the book, and no marks at all in the second.

The book is Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, and though his arguments are too long to recapitulate in full here, he offers that cultures / civilisations / empires often show four factors in common as they reach the impending collapse.  Whether this economic collapse on whose edge we are now teetering proves to be the death knell for the American empire or not, it is clear that such an ending is inevitable in the nearish future.

The decline of empires is inevitable, unless history is somehow reversed, which it can be. Egypt, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Greece – all these agriculturally based empires eventually rotted and collapsed, though some went down for a bit and picked themselves back up again after a century, so I am not too quick to pronounce the death of our American version.

The more recent industrial empires really started with England, which started as an agricultural empire, transformed into a naval empire, and then finally choked and died on its innovative but finally creaking industrial thrust.  While the Egyptian empire lasted almost 2000 years, the whole British Empire – the first to circle the world – took a mere 200 years.  America, still the current sceptre-holder in empirical terms, industrialized in 100 years – 1840 – 1940, more or less – and Russia, building from our successes and avoiding our mistakes, took 50 years.  China is taking 25 years (starting with jets, not recapitulating England and US strategies), and Indonesia and Africa will industrialise even more quickly with green strategies developed from the environmental revolution now about to bloom worldwide.

Even back in the early ‘70’s, when I was studying with Fuller, it was evident from just following the developing mathematics of these industrializing empires that America would be dying on the vine – outdone by its more nimble competitors – within our lifetime.  Now, here it comes, or at least a convincing simulacrum, and are we ready, like the Brits before us, to be a faded power?  Will we be jaded and ironic, like them, or will we resist our fate and go out in a blaze of glory or a spasm of “if-we’re-going-down-you-are-too”.  I hope we have the grace to recognize our time is up and retire from the stage gracefully, but I fear we do not have the maturity as a culture to do so.

It was good to have the book in hand to remind myself how Berman (who also wrote the stunning Coming to Our Senses, an analysis of how our modern body image got its start in the crushing of the Albigensian heresy) posits four signs common to declining empires:

1) Accelerating social and environmental inequality

2) Declining and marginal returns from investment in organizational solutions and socioeconomic problems, including foreign wars

3) Rapidly dropping levels of literacy and cultural understanding, and

4) Spiritual death – meaning the emptying out of real cultural content and the repackaging of it as formula, i.e. the spiritual kitsch of TV, movies, drive-in religion, and People magazine.

We certainly have the first, with the rich getting far, far richer over the last 40 years, while the incomes of the lower end have stayed the same or declined.  We have definitely been pushing toward such a separation between the worker’s pay and the executive’s – a dangerous trend, says Berman, that heralds the end of an empire.

As for the second, how many billions have we invested in Iraq and Afghanistan, for how little return?  And now how many billions into reforming the banking sector for how little effect?

Americans elect the leader of the largest and most influential empire in the world, but how many could point on a map to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalis – where we will surely be involved soon.

And we fight for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, even as those very values are subverted at home, and used cynically abroad to further our own agenda, not that of free people across the globe.

We can hope that the new and unique administration of Barack Obama might slow or re-direct our fall from grace, but the tide of historical circumstance will inevitably push us off the center stage.  Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld and their ‘Plan for a New American Century’ was doomed from the start, and they have certainly accelerated our fall with their folly.

Berman’s solution is for those of us who are awake to form little ‘monasteries’ of culture, places where essential cultural elements are remembered and practiced during the Dark Age to come, be it music, or literature appreciation.  (Berman says that it is not the actual survival of the classics that is at stake this time.  Last time, the monks had to literally copy and save the ancient classics during the post-Roman dark age.  This time, computers and libraries will probably assure the existence of all our literature and music.  What could be lost, says Berman, is the knowledge of how to use these assets – their meaning and their depth.)

In such a context, I hope this little place in Maine might be such a refuge for good bodywork and somatic education.  That was the plan my father and I had when he died, but so far I have been stymied in my attempt to effect our dream, but maybe it is not necessary yet.

No matter my personal part in this, the American empire is at its natural end, now or soon, and preparation for a long period of bleak, Beckettian, monochromatic cultural as well as economic stagnation is essential.

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